HBO Max’s Tokyo Vice is a nuanced portrait of Japan’s capital

“We need to create a show that doesn’t make our Japanese audience cringe,” says JT Rogers, referring to the number one priority when it comes to developing the HBO Max series. Deputy Tokyoarguably one of the best and most exciting shows of the spring (the entire first season is now on the streamer).

A tall order, indeed. Tokyo, like Paris, is one of those cities that Hollywood has long loved to fetishize – for its perceived exoticism, otherness, fantasy of the Orient. It’s an all-too-common trope: a naive American protagonist arrives wide-eyed and curious, awed by neon lights and offbeat fashions, mystified by language and customs, puzzled by wands.

Ansel Elgort as Jake Adelstein in HBO Max’s Deputy Tokyo.

Eros Hoagland/HBO Max

Not so in Deputy Tokyo, due to several factors. Take the pilot, which is directed by executive producer Michael Mann (he miami vice glory). At first it seems like yet another “American in [insert foreign land]”, as the audience follows protagonist Jake Adelstein (Ansel Elgort) through his life as an expat. (The series is loosely based on the memoir of the same name by the real Jake Adelstein, an American journalist who moved to Tokyo in the 90, got a job at the nation’s largest newspaper covering the beat of the Metropolitan Police, and set about investigating the Japanese yakuza too deeply.)

Watch Deputy Tokyo on HBO Max

It turns out, however, that it’s not so much about Jake’s misadventures in Tokyo’s underworld as it is about the various members and rival factions of that world, and the detectives tasked with keeping the uneasy peace between them all. The fact that at least half of the dialogue is in Japanese helps with authenticity, as does a cast that includes the legendary Ken Watanabe as aged detective Hiroto Katagiri, Westworldby Rinko Kikuchi as Jake’s boss, Emi Maruyama, Fargoit is Rachel Keller as fellow expatriate Sam who works as a hostess (essentially a modern but very pared down form of geisha) at a yakuza-owned club, and Shô Kasamatsu as Sato, a brooding member of the fictional Chihara-Kai Syndicate.

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Shô Kasamatsu and Rachel Keller in Deputy Tokyo.

James Lisle/HBO Max

Then there is the approach to the sprawling capital itself, its layers and subcultures, its customs and traditions. “In a weird way, Tokyo, in its elegance and beauty, will take care of itself. We had to keep reducing the target,” says Rogers. “What is newspaper culture like, what is yakuza culture like, what is it like in the mizu-shōbai [the hostess clubs and nighttime entertainment business]. We had to constantly dig into them and be as specific as possible.”

There’s a refreshing lack of explanation – and fetishism – of things. No lingering clichés of where they are or what exotic food they eat. The public is trusted to connect the dots. In an early scene, Jake, hoping to get into the good graces of Watanabe’s Katagiri, buys a very expensive melon and brings it to his family. For those who already know that the Japanese are OGs when it comes to status products and exquisite fruits are offered as gestures of apology or gratitude, this scene is familiar. For those who don’t, it’s a cultural lesson subtly delivered. “We went back and forth in the early drafts of the scene,” says Rogers. “And we decided to buy it and the public can say, ‘Oh, I don’t know what it is, but it’s clearly important.'”

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Ken Watanabe in Deputy Tokyo.

James Lisle/HBO Max

Rogers also acknowledges that Jake’s character arc was conducive to a more authentic portrayal. “He might be a rookie and in over his head and arrogant like young people are, but he’s fluent in Japanese. He knows the city. So that gave us permission as storytellers to say “Well now the audience will just have to catch up with us, that’s what I like when I watch a show,” he says. “As long as I feel in good hands, I really enjoy not knowing for a while and the satisfaction of learning in a pleasant way.”

By Deputy Tokyo, which takes its viewers to corners and places of the city they’ve probably never seen before, the city is as thrilling as it is serene, as bright as it is gritty, as modern as it is ancient, as extraordinary as it is banal. “It’s a confusing metropolis,” says Rogers. “And I mean that as high praise.”

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